Monthly Archives: April 2015

Tips From the World of Spice

A few posts ago, I mentioned an event in Philadelphia called The Life of Spice. There was a lot of interesting information shared by the other two speakers, but the most useful was from the representative from McCormick Spice. Here are the highlights from her presentation.
• Mexican oregano is a completely different plant than Mediterranean oregano. Mexican oregano is mustier than Mediterranean. It’s great in chili and Mexican dishes, but don’t use it in spaghetti sauce.
• Oregano is the most commonly adulterated herb. That means if you see an off brand that seems to be too cheap, it’s probably not all oregano.
• “Cinnamon” coming out of China can be as much as 50% adulterated with the bark of trees other than cinnamon.
• Red pepper makes you feel more satisfied with your meal.
• Smoked paprika can help people who are trying to reduce their salt intake–adds big flavor so salt isn’t missed.
• California bay leaves are not the same as Mediterranean bay leaves — and are not necessarily completely safe, at least in large quantities.
• McCormick has developed tests to show what emotions spices trigger. For cinnamon, it’s love.

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Midwest History Conference

I’m posting this as something of a public service announcement. All who are interested in U.S. history are invited to the first conference of the new Midwestern History Association. The conference runs April 30-May 1, and it is being held in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The conference itself is free, so the only expense is getting there and spending the night.

The speaker lineup looks amazing. I’m really looking forward to this event. Here is a full description, with speakers, topics, and links where you can register. http://hauensteincenter.org/common-ground-summit-on-the-midwest-2/

The Midwest is a region that has long been snubbed by those who are into U.S. regions — and that’s a pity, because the region has had a major impact on U.S. history, not to mention continuing to feed everyone. So hope you’ll come out for this event, which looks to be fairly remarkable.

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Garlic and Almond Soup with Grapes

When I visited Spain, I found that garlic is a mainstay of Spanish cooking, and is often used with great abandon. I was surprised and delighted to find a variety of garlic soups and garlic sauces. Ajo Blanco is a cold soup–particularly welcome in warm weather–that combines garlic and almonds. The recipe comes from Málaga, in southern Spain. Málaga was founded by the Phoenicians in the 12th century BC, was controlled at various times by the Romans and Visigoths, and was among the first cities to fall to the Moors in 711 AD, when they began their invasion of Spain. Almonds remain one of the main exports from the port of Málaga, and remain an important part of the local cuisine.

A couple of notes about this recipe. I love garlic, and usually look for the fattest cloves I can find, or add more than a recipe requires. However, in this recipe, since the garlic is not cooked, it’s pretty potent, even with three average cloves, so don’t get carried away. Traditionally, this would be made using a mortar and pestle, but a food processor or blender makes the process significantly easier.

And finally, some really good news. Almonds have been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and may cut the risk of lung cancer, even if you smoke. Throw in the garlic and olive oil that this recipe contains, and this delightful and unusual recipe is almost frighteningly good for you. Enjoy.

Ajo Blanco con Uvas
(Garlic and Almond Soup with Grapes)

5 oz. blanched almonds
3 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1 tsp. salt
4 Tbs. olive oil
3 Tbs. red wine vinegar
3 cups ice water
3 dozen seedless green grapes

Place the almonds and garlic in a food processor and process until they are finely chopped. (Do not over-process, or the oil will separate out of the almonds. Stop while almonds look like crumbs, and not peanut butter.) Add the bread crumbs, salt, and 1 cup of water, and process until mixture is a fine paste. With the food processor running, add the oil in a thin stream. Next, gradually add the vinegar and as much of the remaining ice water as your food processor can comfortably accommodate. Transfer the mixture to a bowl and stir in any remaining ice water.

Adjust salt to taste. Cover and refrigerate for several hours or (even better) overnight. Peel grapes (not absolutely required, but they float more easily if peeled). Float the grapes in the soup just before serving, or serve soup and float grapes in the individual bowls. Alternatively to using grapes, you could substitute 1 cup of chopped apple. Serves 4–6.

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Almonds

Though Prunus amygdalus is, as its name hints, a close relative of plums, as well as peaches, you’ll never eat this tree’s fruit. For this drupe (the technical name for fruit with stones, such as plums and cherries), life is the pits. Literally. The fruit of this native of southwestern Asia becomes leathery as it matures, and splits open when ripe, exposing the world’s most popular nut, the almond.

Actually, there are two types of almond—sweet and bitter. The bitter almond is used primarily for flavoring, but it is the sweet almond that we eat. The sweet almond, which is almost as famous for its beautiful white flowers as for its nuts, closely resembles the related peach.

The almond probably started in Asia Minor, but it was on the move so early that it is hard to be precise about where its roots truly lie. It is believed that almonds, along with dates, were among the earliest cultivated foods. Almonds have been found on the island of Crete, at the Neolithic level under the palace of Knossos and in Bronze Age storerooms at Hagia Triada. The almond was written of by the Babylonians, Anatolians (who used it largely for oil), and Hittites, and, along with the pistachio, is one of only two nuts mentioned in the Bible.

The Greeks were the first to grow almonds in Europe. The Greek scholar, Theophrastus, mentions in his history of plants, written about 300 BC, that almond trees were the only trees in Greece that produced blossoms before leaves. The Romans, who referred to almonds as “the Greek nut,” brought almonds to Italy around 200 BC The Romans used almonds primarily in the form of sweets, but also used ground almonds to thicken and flavor sauces. Actually, ground almonds have never lost their popularity as a thickener. Continue reading

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